abigail forsyth

Abigail Forsyth on starting a movement with KeepCup

KeepCup co-founder and Order of Australia Medal recipient Abigail Forsyth discusses the ebb and flow of sustainable progress and the reuse movement in the coffee market.

The coffee industry has come a long way in the past 20 years. 

When Abigail Forsyth founded BlueBag cafés with her brother Jamie in 1998, she tells BeanScene the takeaway coffee culture the Melbourne CBD is now famous for, had barely begun.

“We tend to forget that takeaway coffee is a recent phenomenon. We were actually one of the first cafés to introduce branded disposable cups. I remember a lawyer once came in and said drinking out of the disposable cup felt a little embarrassing, like he was drinking out of a sippy cup,” Abigail says.

“But over the years, the takeaway cup became a bit of a status symbol. It meant you were busy, in a rush, and important. Now, it’s flipped back. People are seeing the catastrophic waste that’s being caused by convenience culture. We’ve run the full circle.”

The waste dilemma was apparent to Abigail from the arrival of Bluebag’s first minimum order of 50,000 branded single-use cups.

“I started thinking ‘if we’re using this many cups with only a couple of cafés, think of all the cafés in Melbourne, then in Australia and around the world’,” Abigail recalls. “We did a bit of research and realised they weren’t recyclable. We thought, there had to be a better way and looked into reusable cups.”

In 2006, Bluebag held a small trial with reusable soup mugs, offering a 50 cent discount if customers brought them back. Abigail says the success of the experiment convinced them there was a market for reusables.

On a visit to Myer, looking at possible cup alternatives, Abigail says she realised there was nothing that really suited the now booming Australian coffee culture.

“They were all like big thermoses, made with American-style drip coffee in mind, where you fill a big flask and drink it throughout the day,” she says.

“All the coffee we drank in Australia at the time was espresso and milk-based, served in eight- or 12-ounce sizes. I wanted people to be able to inconspicuously reuse their cups, rather than make it difficult. It became about how you could enjoy the coffee better and just go about your day without making a fuss.”

And thus, KeepCup was born. Now synonymous with reusable cups, KeepCups were designed to resemble and have the same functionality as single-use cups. This meant it was as easy to use for the barista as it was the coffee drinker.

“Little features like fitting underneath a group head, internal volumes the same as a disposable cup – I still can’t believe no one had done that yet – a press-on lid, and having the vessel drafted so it was easy to pour, really supported a quick service environment. It ensured that when people made coffee it was as fast as possible and aided them in making it great quality.” Abigail says.

“One of the things we’ve done successfully over the years is connect that quality and enjoyment of coffee with using a KeepCup.”

But growing KeepCup was not without its challenges. Abigail says when the brand started more than a decade ago, most people thought single-use cups were recyclable and didn’t realise there was a problem.

“We had to educate people about the issue, then overcome the shyness of asking the barista to refill your KeepCup. We did a lot of work with cafés to normalise that behaviour,” she says.

“Cafés are our lifeblood. In Australia, 10 years ago independent cafés weren’t selling anything other than food and coffee, so KeepCup provided them with another revenue stream. It’s fair to say we grew with the independent scene in Australia, then similarly in the United Kingdom, and it followed from there.”

Thanks to this business model, KeepCups are now available in  more than 75 countries, but the company is still headquartered in Clifton Hill, Victoria. 

The café industry has continued to be a focus of KeepCup, recently launching a B2B online platform, making it more convenient for café owners to promote sustainable choices.

“Having run cafés ourselves, we know how busy they are, so being able to order products online, in your own time, makes life easier,” Abigail says. 

“It also takes the customer into an ecosystem with point-of-sale support, photography, and tips and tricks to reduce their impact that goes beyond just selling the product. It’s about engaging cafés, making sure they enjoy using the product and adding value to their journey to reduce their impact.”

At the same time, Abigail says it’s the people who use KeepCups that are the best at promoting and sharing the company’s ethos.

“The advantage of KeepCup is that it’s brand in hand. If someone was in the queue to get a coffee and were holding a KeepCup, other people would see it and ask what it is. People using KeepCup are the ones leading the charge for sustainability, so when they answer ‘it’s a great product that I enjoy using and love drinking coffee from’, it starts to sell itself,” Abigail says. “Really, word of mouth is what’s grown the business and kept us in business all these years.”

A huge turning point for not only KeepCup, but the entire reusability movement occurred in 2017, with the airing of the ABC series War on Waste and David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II.

War on Waste brought attention to the one billion coffee cups sent to landfill every year in Australia, while Blue Planet II raised awareness of the impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.

“It shifted dramatically from there. We were once told to stop using the phrase ‘single-use’ to describe disposable cups, because no one understood what it meant. In 2018, it was The Guardian’s word of the year,” Abigail says.

“KeepCup is all about individual change, people taking it upon themselves to modify their own behaviour. Now we’re seeing the need and support for systemic change with bans coming in on single-use plastic products.”

Since 2017, KeepCup has also seen new waves of competition enter the market, as more businesses attempt to solve the problem of single-use cups.

“When we started, we saw ourselves as fighting the good fight against the disposable cups. Now we’ve created a category, where many people refer to all reusable cups as KeepCups, and we’re competing against other brands doing the same thing,” Abigail says.

“It’s changed the way we’ve messaged our product. We still talk about the issue of waste, non-recyclability, and single-use, but we also need to talk about what makes KeepCup, the product and the business, great and unique.”

After years of building momentum, the reusable cup movement came to a grinding halt in March 2020, with the onset of lockdowns and closures due to COVID-19 around the world. Many cafés started refusing reusable cups, regardless of officials reaffirming their safety with hygiene advice.

“In a pandemic, you have to decide how to respond and your role as a business. We saw ours as needing to step back and let the scientists and epidemiologists run the show. But the plastics industry worked hard during that time to equate hygiene with single-use,” Abigail says.

“We also carried out consumer surveys and discovered a lot of people were using KeepCups because they felt pressure to stop using disposable products. The pandemic gave them permission to go back, which told us that culture plays a significant role in impacting our behaviour. Now, we need to again promote the importance of reusing and reducing and rebuilding communities to support that.”

For her ongoing contribution to reducing waste and sustainable design, Abigail was honoured with an Order of Australia Medal on the Queen’s Birthday list for 2021.

“It was a bit of a surprise, really, but it was lovely to have the role KeepCup has had in driving this reuse movement recognised, as well as the role of design in sustainability, and how much that was a consideration of ours while developing the product,” Abigail says.

Sustainable design will again be at the forefront of KeepCup when it launches its new product range in October.

While Abigail, KeepCup, and its customers continue to champion the reduction of single-use waste, it will take a collective effort to solve the issues of waste and climate change. Already, Abigail says a lot of forward-thinking cafés are moving completely away from single-use packaging for their coffee and food.

“My experience is that you knock and knock and knock on the door, then the wall falls down,” Abigail says. “We’ve just completed a carbon analysis to begin the process of being carbon neutral by 2025, and the remaining impact of our product is the carbon produced to wash a KeepCup.

“If we all used renewable energy, it would be practically zero. The whole issue of carbon neutrality is interdependent and not something any one person, company, or even country can achieve on our own. There’s a big conversation to be had here, only as a planet can we get to carbon zero.” 

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This article appears in the August 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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